Another November, another NaNoWriMo

Well, it’s November and time for NaNoWriMo to begin again in earnest.

This year, and for the foreseeable future I shan’t be participating – it did my writing more harm than good, but for some it is the incentive and push needed to actually get their story written. For those people, good luck.

Still, the forums can be amusing, interesting, fun, frustrating, and many other things. So I’ve got this notion to take topics of interest and provide my more in-depth, blogpost length vs forum reply length thoughts on the matter. How often? Don’t know. Daily seems overly ambitious and too likely to end up driving me mad. I’ll aim for weekly and see if I can’t do a bit more than that.

Well, most recent to catch my attention was more than one thread on the subject of writing characters different from yourself. Men writing women, heterosexuals writing homosexuals, black writing white, etc.

This harkens back to my favourite Gore Vidal quote, not to mention various other things and wholes posts of my own wording.

“Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect!”
~~ Gore Vidal

Humans are humans. Whether we have a penis, vagina, more or less melanin, freckles, red hair, blue eyes, big nose or little we’re still humans. Write the character who fits the story, or write the character the story fits – whichever way around you feel works best. Men are no mystery, nor are women.

Stereotypes help, they communicate certain societal expectations. At a loss for something about a Western culture male? Either he does or doesn’t like sport is a good place; and if he doesn’t, then you can pick and choose from geek social norms for some inspirations. But never mind stereotypes, if you want a rugged all American boy whose as broad at the shoulder as he is tall, with neck and waist of the same circumference as each other, etc. Just because he’s blonde, blue eyed, built like John Carter, Warlord of Mars doesn’t mean he has to be a football or track star. He can be a ballet dancer, or he could be a champion chess player, he could be gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide, he can be a genius or idiot … it doesn’t matter! In the end it’s up to only yourself and your narrative.

If we stress over much about “Well, how do I write a convincing …” we end up with a cookie-cutter template. We wind up with something unimaginative, unalive, and flat. We get characters who are caricatures. Unless you’ve lived under a rock, hidden deep within the Russian steppes, in a convent or monastery, or otherwise lived an incredibly sheltered and isolated life you will have met other races, other creeds, other colours, other genders, other sexes; you’ll have seen TV shows or movies, read books, and so on with them. Women may not have a penis, men may not have a uterus, but we can draw from our life experiences.

You’ll never please everyone. Heinlein is cricised frequently – sadly by those proclaiming themselves feminists or in support of the feminist cause – of having unbelievable female women who are too competent, and capable (especially given that they want to actually be mothers at some point in their lives! ~gasp~ what a horror!) to be real. He based his female characters on, first and foremost his wives, and to a lesser extent his female friends. Virginia Heinlein and … I can’t seem to recall nor find the names of his prior wives were, by all accounts I’ve ever encountered, brilliant and capable women. It was Ginny and Robert’s greatest sorry, according to many of their friends, that they seemed unable to have children. So, a very real human being is unbelievable? And worse, despite being strong and educated, capable and competent, she is anti-feminist for wishing to be a mother.

We could move on to other examples like Teddy Roosevelt and Jack Churchill, but I think I’ve made my point: Your character is real to those willing to believe, so long as you believe in them yourself. If this weren’t true Fantasy, as a genre, would have died long before the birth of Professor Tolkien’s great-great grandfathers.

The key, as I say again and again, to writing any character is to believe in them. If they are real to you, they’ll be read to someone else. Everyone? Probably not. Even as wildly popular as Terry Pratchett, J R R Tolkien, and J K Rowling are, there are still those who can’t take their characters. No matter how well acted and written the roles of Richard Gere and Julia Roberts … people believe what they’re willing to believe and you’ll never get them to change their minds – but believe me, someone will feel the same spark you feel, the same attachment and bond to the characters, etc. For them the story will come alive. It’s for them you’re writing, well they and yourself, so enjoy their wonder and belief, and don’t stress too much about those who elect to listen to a different voice and refuse to hear yours.

“Write what you know.” What nonsense

“Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect!”

~~ Gore Vidal

I positively love that quote.  It says a lot.  It’s not terribly polite, no, but it’s truth in many regards.

“Write what you know” you see it everywhere you see writers or would be writers discussing things.  Such a strange phrase, I think.  If we write only what we know, the where do we get some of the grander adventures of gods and heroes?  Where shall we seek the dreams of far away worlds and the starships that will get us there?  How shall we dance with angels, sing with mermaids, climb Mons Olympus, and so much more?

We’re writers, even if we skip the fantastic, however shall we rub elbows with the financial elite while sipping champagne and eating caviare?  Wherever would be Julia Roberts and Richard Gere — take your pick of films, but I tend to prefer Pretty Woman for this thought.

If you’re speaking of non-fiction, then certainly write what you know.  I’m not about to try to write a four-hundred page treatise on the mating habits of the Australian Dwarf Hamster.  Why?  Because I don’t know anything about the mating habits of any hamster dwarf, Australian, or otherwise.  If I tried to write that book my ignorance would show, unless I researched it to the extent that it ceased to be anything I’m ignorant of.

In fiction however we ought to write what we think, feel, dream, fear, love, and hate.  Fiction is about holding a mirror up to reality and life.  It is symbolism, it is satire, it is commentary, it is entertainment.  It doesn’t matter if you’re writing the epic tale of two stoners looking for their car after a hard night of partying; the tale of the Hollywood streetwalker who wins the heart of a Wall Street billionaire; taking a family trip across the solar system in your very own nuclear rocket ship; sailing the high seas with Long John Silver and a map to lost treasure … these are things we don’t have to know in our minds, these are things we need to know in our hearts, our souls, in our sense of humour, in our feelings of whimsy, and in our deepest desires.

When we tell a story we must write what we don’t and can’t know.  If we didn’t, then books written by women would have naught but female characters, and vice versa for the men.  Indiana Jones would have no Nazis to fight and no exotic locals to interact with.  When we tell a story we have no choice but to dig into our imaginations and write what we believe, and what we hope that our audience will too.  We have to say “I can’t grow a beard, but I suppose if I could it must be …”

Oh, certainly, we can research some things.  We can research details of shaving.  The intricacies of the straight-blade, cut-throat razor, or the ins and outs of maintaining a handlebar moustache can be unravelled with a little time spent in a forum of moustache enthusiasts.  Still, we cannot experience it.  We can know about it, but not know it.  If you can’t have a moustache then you can only guess at how hard or easy it is to keep soup out of it and how you might drink your coffee politely.  Even the author who can grow a moustache doesn’t know these if he does not grow it and experience it.

There there are the unknowable, unresearchable.  What sort of creatures live on Europa?  What sorts of things are rude or polite on the fourth world of ε Eri?  What was Helen of Troy‘s favourite food?  What is the dance that cures the plague by calling upon Polikthara’s holy light?  Just what does sex feel like from the perspective of our opposite gender?  What is it like to be dying of consumption, or of leukaemia?  What are the smells and sounds of this street in Budapest at noon … in 1287CE?  What did sabre-toothed tiger taste like?

So many questions.  Fiction answers those questions.  We dream of hunting a sabre-toothed tiger with our flint spear through the frozen wastes of the neolithic Earth, the survival of ourselves and our whole family dependent on you coming back with that precious meat and that skeleton made of such useful tools.  We tell that dream.  Are we right?  Are we wrong?  Maybe sabre-toothed tiger tastes more like mastodon and less like chicken, but c’est la vie, without a TARDIS we’ll never know.

That is the meaning of that quote, to me.  Even in the things researchable, sometimes you just have to step into the realm of dream, of narrative causality, of poetic justice.  You have to look at the books in the library on lock picking and locksmithing and say “Rabson.  Screw it, we’ll just wax eloquently about a Rabson deadbolt.  They don’t exist, but how many of my readers know the first, second, or even twenty-fifth thing about locks?!”  When we say that we get the wondrous adventures of Mr Bernie Rhodenbarr, burglar extraordinaire.

How many of us have been shot, shot at, stabbed, in a bar fight?  How many of us have been handed an exploding dental floss, a wristwatch with a laser in it, and an Aston Martin with missiles?  How many of us have been given a recommissioned diesel submarine and told to go act like a pirate trying to get past the US Nuclear Navy with a crew of lunatic misfits?  How many of us have taken a rocket to the moon?  How many of us have explored the lost, cursed tombs of the ancient Pharaohs in search of treasure?

When you write fiction trust your gut.  Feel, question, and guess. To Hell with what you know.  Forget what you know.  You know that science says the universal speed limit is 299,792,458 metres per second, but what if you feel or suspect that this isn’t true?!  Don’t tie yourself down with “facts”, ever do that.  If you want to give physics the finger, then do it — keep the laws of thermodynamics only if you like them, but don’t feel obligated to obey them.  This is your world, your story, your dream.  If we can fly when we close our eyes and sleep, then by all the watching gods, so too can we when we look at the words between the pages.